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SE037, The Essence of Rear-Wheel-Drive

The Germans at Audi were gob-smacked: a car with full rear-wheel-drive couldn’t possibly beat their "Quattro" 4WD. But the Lancia 037 managed to do just that, when in 1983 it outperformed its adversaries and won the World Championship. SpeedHolics had an exclusive interview with engineer Sergio Limone, the father of the Lancia 037, to remember how the Turin-based manufacturer’s first Group B was born, and all its Italian creativity. The prototype of this car – code name SE037-001 – will be auctioned on 15 June 2021 at Sotheby’s.

Photos courtesy of Sergio Limone Archive - RM Sotheby's

“The ugly duckling wasn’t so ugly after all. Perhaps a little clumsy, because function was more important that aesthetics, but it had its own strong and resolute personality, that it would be able to express as soon as the opportunity arose.” There is something sweet in the words of Sergio Limone, graduate from Turin Polytechnic and a career at Abarth, when he talks of the SE037-001, the prototype that was a forerunner of the Lancia Rally of the same name, winner of the 1983 World Championship, which he developed during a very special period in the history of rallying and the FIAT Group.

In the early 1980s, after the decline of the 131 Rally, when the regulations were changing, the racing department in Turin had to decide how to replace its battle horse with a car that could be prepared quickly and, of course, be a winner. Among the various design prospects, Cesare Fiorio – deus ex machina of the long and fruitful sporting season of FIAT Auto – opted both to use the Lancia brand he was particularly fond of and which, with the Fulvia and the Stratos, had a glorious past to be relaunched, leaving FIAT to race in Group A with the Ritmo Abarth, and to use a technical layout with a mid-engine and rear-wheel-drive. “This was a very brave choice, but it was necessary because we didn’t have much time.

Although the rally world was shifting towards four-wheel drives, we had to make do with what we had,” Limone recalls, “but we were convinced that the 037 would be competitive off-road and winning on the tarmac, as indeed happened in 1983.”

A great responsibility for him too, who meanwhile, aged 32, had become racing car design director, taking over from Mario Colucci who had held the position for years, and who resigned following divergences with the legendary Aurelio Lampredi, then sole director of Abarth. “We certainly couldn’t ground a whole team of engineers, mechanics and drivers for two years, waiting for four-wheel drive to be developed!”

Having set up the SE036 model, a prototype with a reticular chassis designed to house a Ferrari V8 engine, the forefather of the SE037 (from the early 1960s, Abarth prototypes used the codes ES and SE) began in partnership with Dallara. At that time, he was working on the Lancia Montecarlo Group 5 Endurance, a mixed-structure chassis with a central body borrowed from the Beta Montecarlo (the only coupé with a steel sheet roof, the following models had bodies with a fold-down canvas roof, in the SE037 replaced with one in plastic) fixed to two front and rear tubular subframes, supporting independent suspensions, front end, engine and transmission. In particular, a lot of precision-work went into every component in the double wishbone suspensions, with very long arms, multi-linked to the chassis to control not only the geometry but also the excursion, all to the advantage of versatility in future suspension adjustments and set-up.

“The SE037 prototype is to all extents and purposes a Montecarlo that I modified to suit my needs: it was available immediately, and so it was the quickest to work on.”

Sergio Limone joined forces with a model builder, who like a Sabaudian Steve Jobs, worked in a tiny shed no bigger than four home garages. He asked him to widen and lengthen the bodywork, to enhance it and make it appear fiercer, and he placed four round Ferrari-style lights on the rear and four over-sized headlights on the front that made Leonardo Fioravanti, then director of the Pininfarina Style Centre, laugh: “He told me I couldn’t put the outside lights lower than the inside ones, as it made the front look rather sad. But with my inexperience, I had done nothing more than follow the lines of the Montecarlo bonnet.”

The SE037, the start and end of Sergio Limone’s career as a stylist, was however the basis for the development of an extraordinary car in many aspects. Starting from winning the World Rally Manufacturers Championship in 1983, the last win by a two-wheel drive in a world that was shifting rapidly towards four-wheel drives, and indeed that same year Hannu Mikkola won the World Drivers’ Championship behind the wheel of the Audi Quattro.

The strength of the 037 was the speed at which it was built.

First test in 1980, on the day before Christmas Eve, and its racing début in April ‘82: “It was a very short development, considering that everything had to be done, from road homologation to the production of 200 models distributed pretty much everywhere: the fibreglass bodywork was built by Viberti, specialised in industrial vehicles and with a large production capacity. The front chassis, made by Cecomp, and the rear one, produced by Marchesi, were sent to Pininfarina where they were welded to the Montecarlo safety cell before cataphoresis, painting and seat fitting. The prepared cars were then sent to the ex-Lancia San Paolo site, where there was a shed used for small series, and where the SE037s were fitted with the engine, which came from Abarth with the suspensions, and the gearbox, which came from ZF” in Germany.

They chose the supercharged engine used in the 131 Rally, but with a Roots-type super-charger, which wasn't available on the market and was built and experimented from scratch: “We had built a turbocharged 037, but it was undrivable. At that time, Abarth also had Lancia Corse, which had experience with this type of turbocharging, but applying it to a rally car was impossible: with the typical ‘heel and toe’ driving style of road racing, the engine couldn’t guarantee the necessary continuous delivery of power”. By adopting the supercharger, the objective of 300 HP and the torque target were easily achieved, making the car perfect to drive. Another advantage of the 037 was its essentiality and the accessibility of the mechanics: “During the race, you could replace the gearbox in 13 minutes, including the stopping time, with the gearbox still hot.”

Two curious facts about the project: as the spider bodies had no roof, the racing version was fitted with a roof with two bubbles, “so that two beanpoles like Alen and Röhrl, both over six feet tall, could fit in with their helmets”; and then, in the series version there was no space on the dashboard for the radio, which was “absolutely useless as it was so noisy in the passenger compartment, with the supercharger belts whistling all the time”.

The racing début was in 1982, and was a disaster.

“We were practically racing with a road car, and we had to pull out of the Rally Costa Smeralda due to a problem with the gear selector.” Without a racing car available, the prototype was also used as a reserve car in the Acropolis Rally, with a temporary A6 plate. The 037’s first success came with a private driver, Teodoro Perugini, in the uphill Svolte di Popoli race in August, while the first rally win came a few months later, in October, at the Pace Petroleum, an English national race that Alen used to gain some experience ahead of the RAC, where the 037 came in fourth place. Not bad for a début in the World Championships.

“In ‘83 we got off to a great start with the Montecarlo, also because Fiorio came up with the idea of changing the tyres on the special stage (which was allowed at that time) using spike tyres only on the rear and on the first icy, snow-covered bends, and four slicks on the following stretches of sun-dried tarmac.” A challenging technique that was later developed further, and which required a team of 11/12 mechanics and two trucks, already experimented by Lancia in the longer races with the Fulvia.

Then came the wins at the Tour de Corse, the Acropolis, in New Zealand and at Sanremo and the long-awaited Manufacturers’ World title.

“On fast ground we were competitive, less so on slower stretches with lots of bends, where the four-wheel-drives had the advantage. I have to say though that we were up against the Audi Quattro, which in its second evolution had a few problems. It was another matter when the Peugeot 205 T16 came on the scene: compact, 4WD, with a mid-rear engine, and nobody could beat that.” But that’s another story, and one that only helps to exalt the story of the 037, the last champion of rear-wheel-drive and the purest essence of motorsport.

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